The University of Wisconsin's 6-foot-8 senior forward won his second consecutive Big Ten men's basketball player of the week honor Monday, a credit to his 28-point, 15-rebound performance in the Badgers' 72-61 win at Michigan Saturday.
"He did everything for us at Michigan," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "It's nice to have him honored that way."
Wilkinson is deserving of the spotlight. He has led Wisconsin (4-1 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) to three consecutive wins, setting the stage for Tuesday's showdown with top-ranked and undefeated Illinois (5-0, 19-0) at 8 p.m. at the Kohl Center.
Wilkinson, a Blue Mound, Wis., native, may not be the flashiest player around but he has earned the respect of opponents who must game plan against him. With ever greater frequency, coaches around the Big Ten are citing Wilkinson as the league's elite post player and a potential conference player of the year.
Following Saturday's game Michigan head coach Tommy Amaker said that Wilkinson may be the league's best player. UM assistant coach Charles Ramsey continued to praise him during a conference call Monday.
"Our kids battled but when Mike Wilkinson just took it up notch we just had no one that could slow him down," Ramsey said.
"He just has a certain intestinal fortitude," Ramsey said. "The kid is tough… Whenever they needed a bucket he went out and got it, whenever they needed a big rebound he found a way to come up with it. Those are just things that you can't teach."
The moment Devin Harris decided to forego his final year of college eligibility and enter the NBA Draft last spring, Wilkinson became the focus of the 2004-05 Badgers. But unlike last season, when Harris led UW in scoring in 23 of 32 games, Wilkinson has deferred to his teammates as often as he has taken command.
In fact, sophomore forward Alando Tucker leads the Badgers in scoring at 14.7 per game, with Wilkinson a close second at 14.3. Wilkinson has led UW in scoring just five times in 17 games. Five different Badgers have led the team in scoring in a game this season and UW has six players averaging more than 7.0 points per game.
"When you lose a player of that caliber you certainly have to try to get your players to understand that the play has to come from elsewhere and it doesn't necessarily have to be one guy," Ryan said.
Wilkinson, however, has taken his game to another level since Big Ten play began. He kicked it into overdrive when Tucker was hampered by a right foot injury the past three games.
Tucker sat out Wisconsin's win over Ohio State Jan. 11 and averaged 6.0 points in 24.5 minutes in wins over Michigan State and at Michigan. In that span Wilkinson averaged 23.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest and established new career highs in scoring (29 points against Ohio State) and rebounding (15 against Michigan).
"We forced Wilkinson off the block and he caught it, turned, faced up at 14 feet and he made shots," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
"No, they don't have Devin Harris but they have Mike Wilkinson and I think he really steps up to the challenge when placed in front of him," Ramsey said. "As you look at them, as he goes, they go."
What makes Wilkinson so difficult to contend with, Ramsey said, is his intelligence.
Said Ramsey: "I mean he's always a step or two ahead in thinking the ball game. That's just a special knack or talent… He has an understanding of everything that's going on on the floor, defensively as well as offensively."
Wilkinson is the only player in the Big Ten ranked in the top five in scoring and rebounding in conference-only games: his 18.0 points and 9.8 rebounds per game rank fifth and second, respectively.
After Saturday's game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Ryan said he felt Wilkinson "could care less" if he was considered for Big Ten Player of the Year honors at year's end.
"It doesn't matter," Wilkinson agreed Sunday. "There are so many good players in this league top to bottom. It could go to anyone….My whole main key is just to get wins and help this team do what we set out to do before the season started. That was to win a title. That is the goal every year."
It is fitting, then, that Wilkinson shared last week's player of the week honor with Illinois senior guard Luther Head, who has also been known to defer to his teammates and who plays on the team standing in first place in the Big Ten.
Prior to this season Head was maybe the least well-known of Illinois' sparkling starting five, but he has been the team's most consistent scorer and arguably its best player this season, averaging 16.8 points and 4.2 assists per game while making 44 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Like Wilkinson, Head has stepped up his game in conference play, leading Illinois in scoring in four consecutive games after turning that trick in 6 of 14 non-conference games.
But Wisconsin cannot simply focus on Head. Junior guard Deron Williams, the preseason conference player of the year, leads the Big Ten with 7.1 assists per game and that number leaps to a gaudy 8.6 in conference play. Junior guard Dee Brown (13.3 points per game), a former McDonald's All-American, joins Head, Williams (12.9) and senior forward Roger Powell (12.7) as double figure scorers. The fifth starter, junior forward James Augustine, chips in 9.8 points per game and is fourth in the league in rebounding (7.7 per game).
Head, Brown, Powell and Augustine have all earned player of the week honors this season, making Illinois the first team in the 24-season history of the award to have four players receive the acclaim.
"They've got a lot of guys that have really stepped up their game this year, both ends of the floor, defensively and offensively," Wilkinson said. "They are making extra passes, they are unselfish. They really don't care who scores as long as they win the games. That's one of the signs of a really good team."
It is a sign that applies to both teams squaring off at the Kohl Center tonight.